Highlighting important stories that challenge the status quo and inspire positive change in society is one of the most important aspects of a documentarian’s career. Filmmakers Brendan Fitzgerald and Drea Bernardi are courageously taking on that challenge with their new movie, ‘The Oxy Kingpins,’ which is bringing context to one of the most complex issues that’s currently impacting American society.
Fitzgerald, who’s a three-time Emmy Award nominee, made his feature film directorial debt, and worked with co-helmer Nick August-Perna, on the documentary. The two directors also served as producers, alongside Bernardi, on ‘The Oxy Kingpins,’ which offers unfiltered commentary on the corruption in American business, and the lengths that corporations are willing to go to protect their bottom line. The movie is a critique on late stage capitalism and a cautionary tale of unfettered greed.
‘The Oxy Kingpins’ tells the untold story of the web between pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, street criminals and retailers as they conspired to facilitate the drug-fueled crisis that’s responsible for the deaths of half-a-million Americans. The movie exposes the unseen middle layer of the distribution pyramid, which consists of the distributors who shipped pills to pharmacies, hospitals and pain management clinics across the country.
Fitzgerald and Bernardi’s feature serves as the debut documentary for movie and television production company TYT Productions, which was founded by the business the latter works for, The Young Turks. The company’s first film had its World Premiere in the Documentary Feature Competition last month during SXSW.
Fitzgerald and Bernardi generously took the time during SXSW last month to talk about directing and producing ‘The Oxy Kingpins’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed why they were driven to make the documentary together, what the process like of securing the interviews with the people who appear in the movie was like and why they’re grateful that the film premiered at SXSW.
ShockYa (SY): Brendan, you co-directed, and Drea, you produced, the new documentary, ‘The Oxy Kingpins.’ What was the inspiration behind making the film, and how did the project come together?
Brendan Fitzgerald (BF): We started working on the film in 2018. I had been kicking around a couple of OxyContin stories around that time, and became pretty familiar with it.
Drea and I had breakfast together one day, and she told me that she and her fellow producers were looking for an idea for a film. So we talked about a few idea that we could use for this type of film for awhile. Eventually, the idea that the Sacklers (the family that’s known for founding and owning the pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma) are sort of viewed as a crime family came up, and we thought it was interesting.
At the time, I had a friend who owned a motorcycle shop in Brooklyn, where I lived, and knew (former drug dealer) Alex (Dimattio) peripherally from that community. So I left the breakfast and went to the motorcycle shop and talked to him. I basically hung out there and talked about motorcycles with this guy. Alex would come into the shop, and my friend was a heroin addict and used OxyContin, so he said, ‘You should ask Alex about OxyContin.’
I kind of knew Alex for about two or three years, and I knew he had done time. So I asked him what he knew about OxyContin, and he said, ‘I know a lot.’ So we started talking. Later, Drea also introduced me to (attorney Mike) Papantonio.
I thought that with this story, we had an interesting opportunity to paint a bigger picture. The thing I took away from it, which is interesting, is that there was this hyperfocus on the Sacklers.
I knew all about the Sacklers; I was reading a lot of books that other people were reading. The interesting thing to me, though, was that I had never heard of these distributors. I remember when I interviewed Papantonio for the first time, he kept talking about these distributors, but I didn’t know anything about them.
So when we got home, we started to pull the archives to find out more about these guys and the Congressional hearings. That jumped off the page as a bigger story. There was actually another company that was much larger than (Purdue Pharma)-McKesson, and it’s not even a comparison. What McKesson made in a month was about the same as the Sacklers’ full net worth.
So the more we learn about them, the more we discovered that they were supposed to put their hands up and ask, ‘Why are you sending out these millions of pills? Why are you also putting the people who are in charge of the money also in charge of enforcement? When has that ever worked, especially with a drug that’s a powerful, addictive, dangerous substance?’
The more that we learned about that part of the story, the more that it became apparent that we should focus on them as the major part of the chain. I read pretty much everything that’s out there, but there’s only one that talks about the distributors. It’s (written by John Temple and) called ‘American Pain,’ and it’s about the largest pill mill in South Florida. The rest of the books are really focused on the Sacklers, who are one part of the chain.
Drea Bernardi (DB): The thing that was so cool was that when we started focusing on these distributors, it became clear that Alex was working for McKesson. The drug dealers we focused on were a part of the distribution chain. When we discovered that, it created fireworks.
SY: Brendan, you co-helmed the movie with Nick August-Perna. What was your directorial approach to like during the production? What was your experience like of also working with your director of photography to determine how you would visually shoot the documentary?
BF: We had two competing stories in the film. To me, development’s the most important thing. That includes getting the cast and figuring out what the story is before you shoot.
We had a challenge in that for a period of time, as it looked like the movie wasn’t going to happen, so I started doing a podcast on my own. I also developed the rest of Alex’s network for the story at that point. We got the network together in Boston, including the police. We then went to (the town of Mineral County,) Nevada, which was great, as (the spike in the area’s opioid use) was a story that I had never heard before.
To me, the most important thing, and the thing I enjoy the most, is finding all the characters and putting them in place to tell their story. I don’t totally think of myself as a director, as I only directed part of this film. But I liked figuring out all of the pieces and putting them together. I also try to work with really strong DPs (director of photographers) to figure out how to tell really strong visual stories of the people who are involved.
SY: What was the process like of securing the interviews with the people who appear in ‘The Oxy Kingpins?’
BF: Well, Papantonio was the beginning point, as he wanted to tell his story. I think this was an interesting point because when Drea and I started talking about making the film, I watched a bunch of videos with Papantonio. He’s clearly a passionate guy, but we had to figure out how to hold a movie together with just talking.
So the next time we got on the phone with him, we talked about what he could show us to help make this story come alive. Then we did some crime boards, and I started to see the film in my head. I kind of knew what the elements would be, and I realized that we had this really unique opportunity to present this story to people.
As far as how the rest of the guys, including Alex’s crew, came into play, it was a really interesting process. After we did the first interview, we thought, what if we do a big, multi-episode podcast with the rest of his crew? So we sat down with index cards, and he mapped out how his whole process worked.
DB: Another thing that was really interesting was that we also give the lawyers a particular angle. So the conversations between Michael Papantonio and Alex were real conversations that Mike wanted to have after we told him about Alex. Mike was very interested in meeting and talking to Alex. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but the film ended up informing the depositions that happened in this process, which I though was really cool.
SY: Drea, why did you decide to produce the film, and what was your producing style like during the production?
DB: I’ve been a creative executive for a long time, and I came up in digital. So this is my first feature-length production. So I had to do all of the things that you would normally do, while I also worked for (a production) company inside The Young Turks (TYT Productions).
One of the things that was wild was fundraising, but it was also very challenging, and I don’t think you hear people talk about it enough. Like Brendan mentioned, there was a moment where he didn’t think the film was going to happen. That was because it had gone three months and we went through all of these rounds with the financiers, and they ended up passing. So we didn’t think that we were going to get the money.
Then out of nowhere, someone came in and said, ‘We’ll write a check if you start production tomorrow.’ (Bernardi laughs.) We were like, ‘What?!?’ While we had all of these challenges because we had to start production immediately, I felt very fortunate to work with Brendan and this team. There were a of people who had done this before, so we jumped right in.
We then filmed for three months, and edited while we were filming, which was kind of crazy. Apparently, that’s not how you’re supposed to do it, but the people who gave us the money wanted a film by a certain date, so we had to do it all together.
Then we got to a place where we had to take a break and step back, and then the pandemic hit. We eventually jumped back in and edited the film. So we ended up spending as much time finishing the movie as you normally would if you shot everything and then edited it.
BF: Yes, we developed, shot and edited the movie at the same time, and it was not enjoyable.
DB: It was terrible, but that’s where the money was coming from. Someone said to me that the film was going to take the same amount of time, no matter how you make it, and I said “That’s nice, but we only have six months.” But it ended up taking a full two years. (Bernardi laughs).
SY: ‘The Oxy Kingpins’ (had) its World Premiere in the Documentary Feature Competition section of this year’s SXSW. What was the experience like of bringing the movie to the festival, and having the virtual screenings?
DB: It’s been a wild ride with the festivals, and deciding what we should do this year. But SXSW happens to be one of my favorite festivals, and I’ve been to it many times. I love that all of these different people come together for the films, as well as the music and interactive experiences in Austin.
So when were submitting to festivals, we submitted to all of them, and hoped we’d get into all of them. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. When we eventually got the letter from (SXSW Festival Programmer,) Janet Pierson, it became clear that this is where the film was meant to be, especially since the movie deals with the heart of America.
Texas is in the heart of America, and all of the country’s stories about these pharmaceutical companies intersect there. So screening the film during SXSW made a lot of sense to me, and I was excited that we were chosen to be a part of the festival.
BF: I also love SXSW and Austin. It’s been a weird experience for me this year, though, because I’m on the other side of the world right now.
DB: Yes, Brendan’s been in Singapore for the past year, so we’ve been finishing the film with him while he’s been there. That had it’s own set of challenges, including the internet connection and time difference. I feel bad because he didn’t sleep during the process.
BF: I am on a weird schedule! I go to bed at 8 and get up at 4, and then work until 4. But I have little kids, so my schedule’s like that anyway. (Bernardi laughs.) But we appreciate that we were accepted into SXSW, and are enjoying the experience.